Here's Why People Dressed Smarter Three Hundred Years Ago

Everything 18th Century | A Column by Fiona Reichers

Though people often assume that the Colonists were horribly disadvantaged compared to us because they didn't have the technology we have today, that isn't the case. In fact, they were smarter than us when it came to getting dressed and protecting themselves from the elements! But first, a quick crash course in 18th Century fashion!

In the 18th Century, an ordinary everyday outfit for women usually consisted of a shift or chemise,  stockings, shoes, corset, under-petticoat, hoop skirt (or not, depending on class), petticoat,  another petticoat for warmth (if the weather was cold), main skirt and gown. I know.....a lot of layers.

Men wore a shirt with a ruffled neckline, stockings, shoes, breeches, waistcoat and a frock coat.

Diagram of 18th Century women's layers. Drawing by Fiona Reichers.
Diagram of 18th Century men's layers. Drawing by Fiona Reichers

You're probably wondering, wouldn't they be hot in all those layers in the summer? To answer your question, no! Many people think that feeling "comfortable" means wearing fewer layers or lighter garments, like T-shirts and sweatpants. The 18th Century had a different take on feeling "comfortable", which rested on differences in material. In the summer, men, women and children wore lighter colors like pink, yellow, and pale green in linen, silk or cotton. Yes, women still wore all those layers underneath their main garment but they didn't feel hot because the under layers were made of cotton or linen, or both mixed together. In the winter, they wore darker colors like black, grey and blue. That's where the "heavy petticoat" came into play. The petticoat was usually made of wool to keep the legs warm. Since leggings were not invented in the 18th Century, women and girls relied on thick and heavy petticoats to keep their lower body warm. Men and boys just wore their regular breeches and stockings in cotton or wool. Inside their coats, they had fur lining to keep their upper body warm.

The main reason why Colonists from the 18th Century were smarter than modern people at dressing is that they focused on keeping their body safe from the sun or frost. Nowadays, many people don't think about the harm you can get from the sun or frost, so they just put on a sweatshirt and leggings year-round or they forget to put on sunscreen and walk outside just with a T-shirt and shorts. In the 18th Century, no matter the weather, women would try to protect themselves from the sun (since sunscreen wasn't invented yet) by wearing fichus (or kerchiefs) to protect their chest, a cap, bonnet, or any fashionable hat to protect their head and mitts to protect their arms from both the sun and frost. Men, on the other hand, were technically already covered from the sun and frost. All they had to protect their neck from the sun was a cravat, which was a short piece of fabric tied around the neck and hats called tricorns, which were deemed fashionable in certain classes.

Drawing/diagram of a woman from the 1780s. Drawing by Fiona Reichers
Drawing/diagram of a man from the late 1780s, early 1790s. Drawing by Fiona Reichers

Clearly, 18th Century people were much more clever than us when it came to dressing. So, if you want to protect yourself from the natural elements, look back at what people in the 18th Century wore before you get dressed for the day, and think to yourself, will this protect me from the sun/frost? You'll be so much happier, healthier, and safer.

Featured image by Joeman Empire; CC BY-SA 4.0

Fiona L. Reichers

Fiona, a sophomore, loves to write, paint, and sew 18th century gowns. A history buff and art fanatic, she plans to make a whole wardrobe by graduation, and likes conveying her personality with words.

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